THE LETHAL PRIVY

By Digger Odell

©2010 Digger Odell Publications

In January of this year, I finished my most recent book, The Lethal Privy. It was a bit of a departure from my usual tomes and price guides. I found a large amount of primary source accounts of privy related calamities. Compiling this information would have been extremely difficult had it not been for the recent advances in technology which allow key word searching of historic newspapers and books. Although the topic was serious, I regarded this trove of information with a certain degree of amusement and even used comics to illustrate much the text.

 

The story of the Lethal Privy is the story of the myriad of people who have died in or as a result of the outhouse. My research turned up hundreds of stories which merited only minor mention in the sources, like the one below which chronicles the cruel and harsh realities for workers in the 19th century.

At about 4 o’clock yesterday afternoon a man named John Von Beck, who was at work with several others in digging a privy vault on Pleasant St., No. 123, was suddenly buried alive by the caving in of the vault, which had been dug to the distance of about twenty feet.  His fellow laborers had ceased work for the day, and left him there at the bottom of the excavation to attend to some matters about the tools.

The New York Times June 21, 1867

 

The more I looked, the more I found, hundreds of untold stories of death in the outhouse. The more I found the more I sought. It became an obsession and the variety and number numbed me to emotional and real impact of the data.

November 29, 1908

AGED FARMER BURNED IN

FIRE IN AN OUTHOUSE

By the Associated Press

Stockton, Nov. 21 – Ike Laswell, an aged farmer, living near Tracy, was burned to death some time yesterday in a fire which destroyed the outhouse. Death is supposed to have been accidental, as his revolver, money, etc., were found lying about close at hand. The Coroner has gone after the remains. He leaves a widow and two grown children.

Sunday Mercury and Herald

 

As the volume of material grew, I began to develop insights and parallels with modern times. Human nature doesn’t seem to change regardless of the era as illustrated this example of two mischievous youngsters.

 December 6, 1912

BLEW IT UP

Small Boys Used Stolen Dynamite to Lift Outhouse

(Special to The Observer)

Statesville, Dec. 5. – A trial was held before Magistrate W.J. Lazenby Wednesday afternoon, when he tried two little boys. Ernest and Frank Haire, aged respectively nine and eleven years of age, who had stolen a piece of dynamite from the chain gang, and planted it under an outhouse belonging to Mr. D. D. Little, who lives about seven miles from Statesville. They set the dynamite off and blew the building to smithereens, the explosion being felt for several miles around.

 Sheriff J. M. Deaton was notified of the occurrence, and upon arriving at the scene of the explosion, soon located the boys in a barn belonging to one of the neighbors, where they had gone to spend the night. Both of them were asleep. When Mr. Deaton accused them of the crime they admitted it, and were brought here and tried. The youngest, on account of his age, was released but his brother was held for the action of the Superior Court. The only reason suggested for the boys doing this is the fact that some time ago Mr. Little had whipped them, and it is thought they wrecked the building to get even.

Charlotte Daily Observer

The nature of children and their misdeeds haven’t changed much but the punishments and treatment sure have. Some of the stories were so absurd that they could only be viewed with a comedic eye while others were so sad and horrifying that they made for difficult reading. Yet there was something compelling about them. Perhaps they titillated a sense of vicarious thrill-seeking which I used as a defense against the true dimensions of the tragedy. But as of last week (end of April), I now have a different perspective of these dramas.

Funny how things happen, do you believe in fate? Or are you more likely to dismiss things as simply coincidence? I imagine everyone has events happen in their lives which cause them to wonder.

So many things in life depend upon chance meetings or chance events. Ever wonder, if only I had left for work a few minutes earlier or driven a bit faster, I would have been in that accident?  Think about how you met your spouse, best friend, boss or the other significant people in your life. Was it a chance meeting or event? How different would your life have been be had there been any tiny change in circumstances?

My life-long pursuit of bottles came about as a simple decision to take a walk in the woods. Had I not gone on that walk, I might still be alive. I was killed the other day - well not really - but I could have been and more importantly, I still could be.

There, I said it aloud and with all seriousness. For forty years, I have been digging for bottles and for many of those there has been a thought buried deeply in the recesses of my mind, one which I push back down or only allow it to reveal itself publicly in a joking manner. More than once I have said, “if I was going to die, I would like to do it privy digging unearthing a bottle”. Now I am not so glib and wonder if I am tempting fate.

We have been digging for a while on a site in the downtown area.  This city is known for its deep holes.  Not only are they deep, but the majority are lined with flat limestone rocks. At least one bottle digger has been killed in one of these holes. The lot, on which we were working, is presently occupied by a three story second generation brick building, probably built in the 1880s. The maps indicate it was the site of a dance hall and the two large sinks in the backyard promised lots of back breaking labor and the potential for lots of bottles.

The first day was spent on simply opening up the top of the hole to reveal what appeared to us to be a relatively poorly build stone-liner. It was made of small rock and the walls even as shallow as a few feet down appeared warped and distorted. It caused us little concern as we have heavily invested in safety equipment and like to think we are not taking any chances. Digging was slow and laborious as the hole was filled with lots of rubble, stone and brick, some probably from the construction of the present day building.

 

At the eight foot level, we dropped our largest tube into the hole. The tubes, made of fiberglass, are our life insurance policy. We paid the premium years ago when we purchased these three safety tubes. So while we took note of the condition of the walls of the privy, we dismissed the uncomfortable thought of what could happen. Three days of moving dirt got us to the 22 foot level.  At this depth, we had three safety tubes in hole.

Several things were odd about this hole.  First, the diameter seemed to get larger as we went down.  At the top, it measured just four feet in diameter but at the 22 foot level it was at least five feet. Second, at about 22 feet down an abrupt change in the fill from construction debris to what appeared to be gravel put us on edge, at least subconsciously, since we had never seen this before. Worst still, at this level, the rock wall was badly damaged, some rock was loose, some rock was missing and all the rock was small - not at all typical.

We were not able to get back to digging this hole quickly and so a week or passed before our schedules would permit us to continue.  The entire week was filled with foreboding. The night before the dig, I got only a few hours of fitful sleep, as though some great weight were upon me.  In the twilight between real sleep and the state of being awake, my rest was filled with nightmare scenarios – something wasn’t right.

I was not only one – all three of us had had similar thoughts. Maybe we should just bag it. Close calls from the past were dredged up. My thoughts went to years ago and the hole in another city which partially collapsed while we sitting eating lunch. Thank God no one was in the hole. “Yeah, and that guy was killed years ago”. The discussion and mood was somber.  We were reluctant to get started – who’d go down? I found my mouth moving and the words coming out shocked me, “I’ll go.”

 

I descended into the tomb-like blackness. “Lower the tube,” I demanded. I wanted as little exposure between me and that wall as possible.  More gravel. What is going on? I dug for a couple of hours - that translates into a couple of feet.  I had noticed a breach in the wall but lowering the tube put it out of mind. We’d found two Hutchinson soda bottles in the fill - just enough to keep us going.

Ted came down after me. He moved enough fill to get us to the 25 foot level, then probed the hole to determine if we were close to bottom. He buried the ten-footer to the handle.  This hole was at least 35 feet deep and no sign of layer! No way could our tubes cover that depth since they were only a total of 24 feet in length. What should we do? We broke for lunch.

I was just taking a bite out of my turkey sandwich when it happened. It happened as it usually does. The wall began talking - at first in whisper. While you can’t count on it, most cave-ins begin with a trickle.  Small cracks in the earth appear, and tiny bits of dirt rain down before the deluge. Amplified by the fiberglass, the sound of a few small stones and bits of dirt bouncing as they danced down the outside of the tubes, alerted us to what was about to occur. Seconds later, whoomp and the grinding sound of rock against the sides caused us to jumped up and stare down into the black abyss which was the hole. Dimly we could make out the outline of a white bucket and handle of the shovel which had been left in the hole. More dirt and rock moved. The bottom tube groaned under the stress and distorted in shape as the rock and earth from more than 20 feet above pressed against it unevenly- but the tube held.  No dirt or rock lay where Ted or I had been standing only a short time ago.

Our pricey safety tubes did their job. The insurance paid off – I wasn’t dead – but there was a problem. The tubes were stuck. The weight of the rock and dirt was so great that the tools and techniques we typically used to raise and lower the tubes were simply inadequate to the task. Because of their design; the tubes were wedged in place as the earth and stone leaned heavily against them.

The question of whether we would dig this hole was settled, but we couldn’t fill it back in either because we could not get the tubes out. We brainstormed every option and idea we could imagine, from backhoes to 100 foot cranes. The lot was too small and inaccessible for a backhoe; the crane idea was absurdly expensive. Leaving them in place with a 25 foot open hole was out of the question. The only way to extract them was to pull them out from the top but that might destroy them in the process.

Ultimately, it would take a 13 foot steel I beam, a dozen railroad ties, a heavy steel brace bolted on the largest tube, a 50 ton jack and eight hours to remove two of the three tubes. We literally inched them out.  But the third tube had to be cut off to salvage the other two. With five days invested in this dig, we still hadn’t finished filling in the hole.

 

Was all of my work on the topic of the Lethal Privy in any way related to the events of the last dig?  You might be skeptical – but as I rummaged around for material for this article and read my own concluding words written only a few months prior, I was not so certain.

The number and popularity of reality TV shows like, 1000 Ways to Die and The World’s Dumbest Criminals say as much about us as about their unwitting stars. Our fascination vicariously focused on human folly often leads us to the question - Could these people really be this stupid or is it a matter of fate or misfortune? That is up to you to decide.

 This book, like those shows is shocking in its content. It is about tragedy and misfortune and yet it there is a comic element to these stories which allows us to laugh at death and hard luck. But do so at your own risk - for there but for the grace of God go you. Someday you may find yourself an unwilling actor in such a drama.